It's time, once again, for everyone's favorite winter event: the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the comically effete confab of rich people, sympathetic politicians, and "public intellectuals" or whatever inveighing on the state of the global economy and basically all of humankind. Donald Trump went last year, but skipped this one, which was probably a relief to the likes of, say, Bill Gates. The latter might argue he's a different breed of rich guy: The kind who accrued his massive wealth by way of monopoly but whose old company also deigns to make large, splashy donations to good causes and who has earned plaudits by encouraging fellow SuperRichFolk to pledge to give away most of their wealth before death. Don't lump Gates in with the Trumps of the world, please. That wouldn't be nice.
Except it wasn't just Trump who stayed away from the Swiss alps—a handful of big names in world politics have shunned Davos this year, from embattled UK Prime Minister Theresa May to French President Emmanuel Macron. They all had populist-tinged domestic troubles to deal with, and as a result deprived the event of some of its world-leader star power.
That left the specter of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to fill the void.
The insurgent democratic socialist congresswoman from the Bronx was only sworn in a few weeks ago and, despite some plum committee assignments and a serious online following, does not have all that much power, in the traditional sense of the term. But she apparently has the ability to strike mortal fear into the hearts of the rich, even without showing up.
"It's scary," Scott Minerd, global chief of investment at the powerhouse firm Guggenheim Partners, told CNBC from Davos of Ocasio-Cortez's suggestion of a 70 percent marginal tax rate on the richest of the rich, a policy she raised off the cuff in a recent 60 Minutes interview. "By the time we get to the presidential election, this is going to gain more momentum, And I think the likelihood that a 70 percent tax rate, or something like that, becomes policy is actually very real."
Ocasio-Cortez's proposal—which has no chance of passage in the current Congress, and isn't even a bill—has been the talk of the town at the global elite love-in. And even if there were also plenty of derisive laughs thrown her way, there's reason to believe Minerd's take wasn't pure concern trolling. Polls have suggested large majorities of the American public—including unbelievably big minorities of Republicans—support what an oligarch might call "confiscatory" taxation, and the rest of us might just refer to as "economic polices from the 1950s." Bernie Sanders hasn't joined the 2020 field yet, but Elizabeth Warren is already in, her nascent bid a sign that even as moderates remain a staple of the Democratic Party in Congress—and high-dollar donors retain power behind the scenes—old-school populist attacks on the wealthy are enjoying new currency in the age of Trump. In fact, Ocasio-Cortez has gone so far as to suggest billionaires shouldn't exist, though she was also careful to note she didn't necessarily think someone like Gates was "immoral."
That rich people seemed to spend so much time in Davos addressing a freshman lawmaker's proposal to take some more of their shit also makes sense given the sheer scope of the problem: The gap between rich and poor is as stark as ever. An OxFam analysis released just in time for Davos concluded that the 26 richest people on Earth own as much as the poorest 50 percent. That was just the latest in a never-ending series of reports from all manner of policy shops and advocacy groups showing inequality is out of control. The typical black family in America may have zero wealth by the end of the century. 2017 was the best year for billionaires in human history, according to a recent report by Swiss bank UBS, while another report found that the Waltons, Kochs, and Mars families (to take three of America's wealthiest) have enjoyed a nearly 6,000 percent increase in riches since the 1980s. (On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin purchased a $238 million penthouse apartment overlooking Manhattan's Central Park, the most expensive digs ever purchased in America.)
But if Ocasio-Cortez has served as the politician foil-in-absentia at Davos, Anand Giridharadas has proved its intellectual bête noire. Reporter after reporter at the conference asked people like Gates about the journalist's contention—in his recent book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World—that making a show of Doing Good while benefiting from late capitalism doesn't make you a some kind of change agent, but a kind of soft fraud. That is, if you're just blunting the edge of rampant inequality with a fortune you made preying on people who lack healthcare or a union or job security, you aren't exactly off the hook for being a capitalist huckster. You're making yourself feel better, and perhaps making it less likely hordes of angry people storm your gated estate.
The responses at Davos to Giridharadas were just as telling as the ones to Ocasio-Cortez's 70 percent plan.
Gates—who has previously praised the book—seemed to vaguely suggest the author was a communist. Tony Blair laughed off Giridharadas's suggestion that Davos elites, even as they profess good intentions, "broke the modern world," dismissing it as intellectually lazy. But it's hard not to see all of this and conclude that the only thing that annoys rich people more than someone trying to raise their taxes (like Ocasio-Cortez) is someone telling them their philanthropy isn't a moral get-out-jail-free card—and that they can't escape their pasts with a few perfunctory handouts.
As Giridharadas is careful to point out, rich people donating to good causes is a good thing—surely better than the alternative of them hoarding their wealth. This isn't something to bemoan in the abstract. But so long as people at Davos are cheering their own generosity to Africa even as they benefit from Trump's tax cuts and chafe at the idea of higher taxes to pay for things people in their own countries desperately need, the populist rage will keep building.
In other words, if the people at Davos—or the politicians skipping it—think Trump and Brexit amounted to their worst nightmare, they have another thing coming. After all, Ocasio-Cortez just got here.
Correction 1/24/2019: Because of an editing error, a previous version of this story wrongly suggested the World Economic Forum was taking place in February rather than January. We regret the error.
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